At the heart of understanding French wine is the concept of terroir, the idea that where a particular place can leave its imprint on the grapes that are grown there. It is why the wines are labelled according to place names rather than grape varieties. The words ‘Appellation d’Origine Protégée’ (AOP) (formerly AOC - the ‘C’ is for Contrôlée) on a bottle mean that there are limits on where, how and from which grapes a wine has been made. So, the label says Sancerre, not Sauvignon Blanc. It would be great if it said both; it does not.
(IGP wines (Indication Géographique Protégée), formerly known as Vins de Pays, have less stringent requirements for production and can carry the grape names. So too can a Vin de France, for which the grapes can come from anywhere in the country.)
But don’t let the labelling deter you. No other country apart from maybe Italy offers the range of styles and flavours found in France. A key to getting the most out of them is that in France, wine is hardly ever drunk without food. Modern winemaking means that most can be now enjoyed by themselves, but they’re all the better when served at mealtimes. If in doubt what to serve, think about what the locals might eat - Beaujolais with Lyonnaise sausages, Provence rosé with bouillabaisse and so on.
Fruity but dry, mouth-filling but refreshing, it’s not hard to see why good Bordeaux reds have had a devoted following for decades, even centuries. The top wines command high prices and can age well for many years, but there are also plenty of others that offer the authentic Bordeaux experience without breaking the bank. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are the two main grapes, with Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and very occasionally Carmenère (see Chile) in support. Expect dark fruit flavours, some earthy tannin - lamb and hard cheeses are ideal foils - and sometimes a fragrant leafy character. The wines are riper and softer than used to be the case, so while many will improve with age, they no longer demand time in a cellar.
Bordeaux whites see Sauvignon Blanc rubbing shoulders with Sémillon. Unoaked styles are excellent brisk summer wines, while more ambitious barrel-aged examples are richer and more complex, and can hold their own against top white Burgundies. The same two grapes, especially Sémillon, are used for the region’s sweet wines. Sauternes is the famous name here - try it with our Mrs Bells Blue Cheese.
Burgundy is the place that producers of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir the world over look to for inspiration. It’s also where the French concept of terroir is taken to its extreme, with a four-tier hierarchy of appellations based on centuries of discovering which are the best plots for those two grapes. The tiers run as follows:
Generic Burgundy. Bourgogne Rouge or Blanc can come from anywhere in the region
Village Wines. Come from vines grown within the boundaries of the place named on the label, such as Gevrey-Chambertin, or Puligny Montrachet.
Premier Cru. A step up from Village wine, these comes from sites within a particular village with better terroir. Examples would be Gevrey Chambertin Les Cazetiers or Puligny Montrachet Les Demoiselles.
Grand Cru. From the very best sites, just 3% of Burgundy comes into this category, meaning the wines are rare and expensive. Examples are Le Chambertin and Le Montrachet.
Theoretically, quality rises as you climb through these tiers. However, the key to Burgundy is to seek out good producers - their humble Bourgogne Blanc may outclass someone else’s Premier Cru at three times the price. And while good Burgundy doesn’t come cheap, some districts stand out for value - appellations to look out for include Chablis, Rully and St Véran for whites, Mercurey and Chorey-lès-Beaune for reds.
Finally Beaujolais, which lies at Burgundy’s southern extreme. Gamay rather than Pinot Noir is the grape here. Good Beaujolais should be young and joyful, not too serious and brimming with earthy red fruit flavours. The best come from ten zones - crus - and offer a more depth and flesh than the basic wines. The most famous of these are Fleurie, Moulin à Vent and Morgon.
While Champagne no longer has the monopoly on high class sparkling wine, it’s still the drink that people turn to when it comes to celebrations. But it’s a shame to only drink it on special occasions: it’s great with shellfish and smoked salmon, and some of the sturdier wines and especially the rosés also work well with poultry and lighter game dishes.
Champagne is produced mainly from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes grown in chalk-rich vineyards in northern France. The still wines produced here are distinctly tart, but when they are given some sparkle through the méthode Champenoise, there’s a wonderful transformation into something light yet heady, and very moreish.
Some Champagne terms that are useful to know:
Non-vintage: The most common style of Champagne, blended from recent vintages to achieve a consistent style from year to year
Vintage: Comes from just one year, and is only produced in good years
Blanc de Blancs: Made entirely from white grapes, which 99% of the time means Chardonnay
Blanc de Noirs: Made entirely from red grapes, generally a blend of Pinot Noir & Pinot Meunier
Prestige Cuvée: The top wine from a particular producer. Examples would Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle, Louis Roederer Cristal and Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill.
The Loire Valley
In wine terms, France’s longest river can be split into three sections. In the upper reaches, Sauvignon Blanc rules. The big names here are Sancerre & Pouilly Fumé, with Menetou Salon being not far behind (don’t keep them just for fish - they’re great with goat’s cheese). There are also a few reds and rosés made from Pinot Noir. Further downstream, Chenin Blanc takes over for the whites, and is used for dry (sec), medium (demi-sec), sweet (doux) and sparkling wines. The best drier styles come from Vouvray, Montlouis and Savennières, while those with a sweeter tooth should seek out Bonnezeaux and Coteaux du Layon. The reds, made mostly from Cabernet Franc but with Cot (Malbec), Gamay and Cabernet Sauvignon also appearing, can be very good too; the top appellations are Bourgueil, Chinon and Saumur Champigny. As you approach the Atlantic, you find yourself in Muscadet territory. This crisp, often slightly briny wine made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape is enjoying something of a revival at the moment: few wines go better with oysters.
Southern French wine has traditionally been a case of quantity rather than quality but that has changed markedly in the last 30 years. In the Languedoc, there’s a similar cocktail of grapes for most traditional reds, majoring on Grenache and Syrah, with Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault in support. Fitou, Minervois and Corbières are the famous names, Faugères, St Chinian and Pic St Loup less well-known but more consistent. But recent years have seen an influx of other grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. These wines have to be sold as IGP, but can often outclass (and outprice) the AOP wines. As the climate is generally warm, whites are less numerous, but don’t ignore the seafood-friendly Picpoul de Pinet, sometimes dubbed the Muscadet of the South, nor the fine Chardonnay made in the hills of Limoux.
To the east is Provence, where rosé wine reigns supreme - three out of every four bottles are pink. Tasty as the rosés are, don’t ignore the meaty reds of Bandol. To the west, in the vineyards north of the Spanish border, there are some of France’s quirkiest wines. The stars here the aromatic whites of Jurançon, made from Gros and Petit Manseng, and the sturdy, tannic reds of Madiran, made mostly from Tannat, and Cahors, where Malbec reigns. And for value, check out Saint Mont and Côtes de Gascogne for both reds and whites.
Alsace lies in Eastern France, in the shadow of the Vosges mountains. These act as a buffer to the worst of the elements, allowing the vines to bask in some of the warmest driest conditions found anywhere in France. The tall fluted bottles and the producers with names such as Schlumberger, Zind Humbrecht and Hugel are testimony to a history that includes several periods of German rule. Alsace also differs from other classic French regions in that the appellation laws permit the grape variety to be given on the bottle. The main grapes here are Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris, with Muscat, Pinot Blanc Sylvaner, Pinot Noir, Chasselas and Auxerrois in support. There’s some very reasonable sparkling wine, Crémant d’Alsace, and some fine sweet wines - look for bottles labelled Vendange Tardive or Sélection de Grains Nobles. Otherwise most wines are dry to off-dry. As well as being an ideal foil for the classic local dish choucroute garni, in which fermented cabbage and spicy sausages feature large, they also have a richness and freshness that makes them excellent partners for spicier Asian dishes.
Wine-wise, the Rhône is a valley of two halves. In the northern Rhône, Syrah rules, and is responsible for wines such as Hermitage, Côte Rôtie and Crozes-Hermitage. A few whites are also produced, the most distinctive of which is the exotically perfumed Condrieu, made from 100% Viognier. In the southern Rhône, Grenache holds sway, and most wines would be typically 60-80% Grenache, with Syrah and Mourvèdre usually making up most of the balance, although around a dozen other varieties are also grown. The big names are Châteauneuf du Pape and Gigondas, but this is also where most Côtes du Rhône comes from. Try the northern reds with roasts, and the southern ones with stews - Châteauneuf du Pape and Lancashire Hotpot work very well together.